“Which memoirs do you like best?”

That’s the most frequently asked question when someone hears about this blog. Having now read at least 100 memoirs, I am ready to offer my own top ten list for your inspection. The ten books fall into three categories:

Memoirs written before the current trend–books that first drew me to the genre:

  1. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou.
  2. One Writer’s Beginnings by Eudora Welty
  3. Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl

Girls who Dream Big and Get Out of Dodge

  1. The Road from Coorain by Jill Ker Conway
  2. An American Childhood by Annie Dillard
  3. A Girl Named Zippy by Haven Kimmel
  4. Little Heathens by Mildred Armstrong Kalish

Spiritual Awakenings

  1. Dakota by Kathleen Norris
  2. Learning to Die in Miami by Carlos Eires
  3. Lit by Mary Karr

What do I look for in memoir? A voice that sings even through desperate times, a transcendent voice, a voice at once unique and yet connected to a community and a place, especially rural landscapes.

What can you add or subtract from this description for your own personal hermeneutic?

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Shirley Showalter


  1. Lynette Benton on May 6, 2011 at 10:53 pm

    Like you, I’d have to put the Road From Coorain in among my favorite memoirs.

    I also loved Devotion, by Dani Shapiro, and A 3 Dog Life, by Abigail Thomas, The Year of Magical Thinking, by Didion. And James Baldwin’s various memoirs. And tons more, but I’d have to check my list of favorites and on this Friday night I’m too tired to even rifle through my files to find it.

    Thanks for a post that helped me re-enjoy parts of my favorite memoirs, and for providing some new ones for me to check out.

    • shirleyhs on May 8, 2011 at 4:26 pm

      Thanks so much, Lynette, for your list and for noting one overlap. I also loved The Year of Magical Thinking and almost placed it on my list. But what really helped me to choose finally (after 2.5 years of reading and reviewing memoirs) was thinking about which ones will help me write my own. Then I began to sort by themes more than by brilliant writing, although each writer on my list is brilliant also, in a different way.

      I appreciate your RT’s on Twitter. I need to remember to do a guest post for you. If you want to do one for me, the gate is wide open. Love what you are doing on your own blog.

  2. Kathleen Friesen on May 7, 2011 at 3:01 am

    Interesting idea and list. I’ve read five of the ones on your list. I would include “Dakota” among my favorites. Like Lynette, Joan Didon’s, “The Year of Magical Thinking,” would be in my top 10 too. You’ve inspired me to consider making my own list. As usual I’m interested in asking more questions: “How does my top 10 memoir list reflect my own past life experience and who I’m becoming?” – “Is a top 10 memoir list a mini-memoir of its own?”

    • shirleyhs on May 8, 2011 at 4:30 pm

      Kathleen, you always ask great questions! And I do believe a list of favorites can be a mini-memoir of its own. Yes! This one is. I could only create it when I got ready to concentrate on a long-form memoir of my own. Then I went to my shelf and asked, “Which of these, if I reread them, would help me see where I want to go?” Otherwise, making a list of favorite memoirs is a little like choosing a favorite child. Impossible.

  3. Mary L. Tabor on May 7, 2011 at 3:28 pm

    A great list, Shirley. I want to add a strong vote for Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.

    And on reading what matters to you in a memoir, I am reminded that you once had a copy of my memoir but I think passed it on to someone while recent events piled up on you and for that I am sorry. I am most willing to give you the Kindle version if you would like another look.

    We share literary values and that means much to me. And this is a blog always worth following: the reason I subscribe.

    • shirleyhs on May 8, 2011 at 5:02 pm

      Thanks, Mary! Just in case you’d like to see my review of Magical Thinking, here it is: http://100memoirs.com/2009/08/09/the-year-of-magical-thinking-a-memoir-to-read-and-reread/ Reading it again, I think I may just need to do what Mary Karr did–add an eleventh title to my top ten list!

      I agree that we share literary values, and I admire what you are doing with your blog and your books. I encourage my readers to find you and to hear your story of finding true love (and also coming into one’s own as a writer) after age 60. http://maryltabor.com/AboutMary_page.html

      Great use of video, by the way.

      I would love to read your book and review it here, but I am starting to close down the reviewing process because it takes too much time away from what I need to do next–write my own memoir. I know you will understand. Thank you for your kind offer to supply the book again.

      Maybe someday we will meet in person. I live only two hours away. Let’s stay in touch by social media in the meantime.

  4. Annette Gendler on May 8, 2011 at 2:34 am

    I agree on The Year of Magical Thinking, and also Abigail Thomas’s A Three Dog Life. I would add Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes, Mary Karr’s The Liars’ Club, Edwidge Danticat’s Brother, I’m Dying, Isabel Allende’s Paula, and the jewel of a memoir West with the Night by Beryl Markham. Oh, and for a lighter one, Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals. But the list goes on…

    • shirleyhs on May 8, 2011 at 5:13 pm

      I haven’t read A Three Dog Life, so thanks for offering that one. Have you done a review of it? If so, please reply with a link so readers can see it. If not, I’d be happy to offer you a guest post here.

      I have read Angela’s Ashes and The Liars’ Club, both of which I enjoyed much. I have a copy of West with the Night–but never read it and probably gave it away when I moved without realizing, I diminished my memoir collection. Ah well!

      I’d love reviews of any of these as guest blogs, actually. Thanks for finding my site! I’m enjoying yours also.

  5. GutsyWriter on May 8, 2011 at 2:57 am

    Sorry to say I haven’t read those but I love memoirs and my taste is more about travel memoirs. I enjoy stories that are about adventure and life in another culture, or people taking risks in life.
    I loved “A Trip to the Beach,” “Fat Forty and Fired,” An Embarrassment of Mangoes,” “Half Way to Each Other,” “French by Heart,” “Honeymoon with my Brother,” “Almost French.”

    • shirleyhs on May 8, 2011 at 5:15 pm

      Sonia, thanks for sharing your favorites here and for expanding the category into travel memoirs. I wonder if you would like West with the Night as much as Annette did (see above)?

      Thanks for your faithful commenting and blogging. Readers, you might want to learn more about Sonia’s adventures in Belize and in motherhood (it’s Mother’s Day, after all!) by going to her site. She’s Gutsy!

  6. Loretta Willems on May 8, 2011 at 7:31 pm

    Dear Shirley,
    I owe you a letter. I’ve been reading your blog for quite a while now, but haven’t written any comments since the one I wrote re the Mennonite-Unitarian connection. The main reason for this is that I happened to Google my name soon after that post and found to my dismay that my words to you popped up. I find it very inhibiting to know that whatever comment I make is being permanently preserved in cyberspace, readily accessible to whomever.
    However, I do want to let you know that I am reading your posts, and find them interesting and useful. Those words I don’t mind sharing with the world.

    • shirleyhs on May 9, 2011 at 12:51 am

      Dear Loretta,

      Thanks for sharing this letter with me. I love getting mail! I know it is a little intimidating that our words live on in cyberspace. But I’m also glad that you are willing to tell others you enjoy reading this blog. That’s a great way to end Mother’s Day and start a new week! As you feel comfortable, please continue to comment. I respect your discretion.

  7. DazyDayWriter on May 9, 2011 at 10:36 pm

    So, Shirley, your top 3 are also memoirs I love and Dakota (of course). Lit is on my bookshelf (soon to be read again). I would add Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking, and Death be Not Proud by John Gunther. And many others are “right up there,” but sometimes (yes!) it’s fun to identify those truly special books. Thanks for sharing your top 10 — I’ve just added a couple of new books to my summer reading list! Have a good week. –Daisy

    • shirleyhs on May 10, 2011 at 7:07 pm

      Always glad to add to anyone’s summer reading list–good idea for a new angle for a blog post, btw. Thanks!

      We overlap in our tastes in many ways. Thanks for stopping by.

  8. jzrart on May 10, 2011 at 6:59 pm

    What a great list. I’ve missed 4 of them so I’ve some reading to do. Additions? Lots! But the ones I’ve read on your list are the tops!!


    • shirleyhs on May 10, 2011 at 7:08 pm

      Thanks so much, Joan. Your enthusiasm confirms my selections. Hope you enjoy reading the ones you missed.

  9. Linda Gartz on August 13, 2011 at 10:52 pm

    Hi Shirley,
    I’m a little late to this memoir appreciation party, but wanted to join in as memoir-writer-in-progress. I’ve read 5 of these with Frankl at my bedside. An older memoir, but my just-about favorite is Growing Up by Russell Baker (won Pulitzer Prize, so I guess my admiration is not unique). Funny, poignant, accessible, and with his theme always in mind, I re-read it to figure out how he did it. I’m using my parents and grandparents vast collection of diaries and letters as a jumping off point and trying to get to “theme” and “structure.” Your blog is so helpful! You can see my posts on a smidgen of my primary documents at my blog.

  10. shirleyhs on August 14, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    Linda, this party is like a frat house–never ending. 🙂 I need to go back and refresh my memory on Growing Up. I think I read it before I started this blog and haven’t gone back to it. Good reminder. The book is on lots of classic lists.

    I need to go visit your website and spend some time with it. What you are doing sounds very interesting!

  11. Linda Gartz on August 14, 2011 at 7:59 pm

    Thanks, Shirley. Baker is just brilliant — self-effacing and with wit and subtle repetition, reminds us of universal truths — but never, ever seems preachy. I also love Color of Water — great structure, moving back and forth between interviews with his Jewish Mom and his (James McBride’s) story of one of 12 bi-racial kids his mom raised alone. Jeanette Wall’s, The Glass Castle (hard to compete with her dysfunctional family story), and Ian Frazier’s Family — which is a truly epic family history, going into details and making them interesting, which Frazier does so well. I’m glad to have others’ suggestions listed here as well.

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